Blair Pethel's Wine Journey
BY DOUG HEYE
Blair Pethel of Domaine Dublère, outside his winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune in Burgundy.
Wine lovers are a passionate lot, none more so than those whose heart (and purse) strings are tugged by the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of France’s legendary Burgundy. This is certainly true of Blair Pethel. While a Washington-based journalist for Knight-Ridder in the late 1990s, the Greensboro, North Carolina, native traveled to the Côte d’Or to join in the 1999 harvest with winegrower Patrice Rion. Despite the backbreaking work of hand-harvesting of grapes one bunch at a time—“There is a saying, ‘La terre est basse—the ground is low.’ That is especially true in Burgundy,” Pethel jokes—picking and crushing grapes had him hooked. He resigned from Knight-Ridder the next year, with Burgundy on the horizon.
The dream was temporarily sidetracked when he accepted a job with Bloomberg News, but his “exit strategy” remained intact. Finally, in 2003 he and wife Francesca—along with sons Kit and Harry—said au revoir to Washington.
In Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital, the Pethels jumped in feet first, buying a home on Rue des Tonneliers (literally, “Coopers Street,” named for the makers of wooden casks or tubs) and immersing themselves in the French way of life. He enrolled in Beaune’s wine school, the Lycée Viticole, and the two boys went to French schools. Winemaker friends and industry contacts soon helped Pethel find vineyard plots in the Côte d’Or and, later, establish his eponymous label, Domaine Dublère (Domaine du Blair, get it?), in nearby Savigny-Lès-Beaune. Domaine Dublère produced its first wines, Chardonnays from the famed Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne and Chassagne-Montrachet’s Premier Cru Les Chaumes, in 2004 and 2005. Production was small—only four barrels of the Corton-Charlemagne were made—but hopes were high. Although his studies taught him about the never-ending trials of a local winemaker (think: EU customs laws, French accountancy laws, oenology and viticulture), it has been working his vineyards—those Domaine Dublère has since added, including top terroirs in Savignylès-Beaune and Nuits-Saint-Georges—that has resulted in Pethel’s true education.
“That’s the stuff you learn by doing it,” Pethel says. “Great wine from Burgundy is made from great grapes, which only come from the vineyard.” In other words, terroir, that mysterious French word encapsulating soil, sun and site, matters. “I’ve had to turn down vineyards that do not speak to my soul,” he says.
While recognition can take years for a winery to acquire, Pethel quickly built a strong reputation in the European and American wine press and among his neighbors. Praising his 2008 Chablis Grand Cru Preuses, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate remarked Pethel “has once again turned in a sensational performance [for a] supremely elegant, buoyant, mouth-watering [wine]” and gave the wine 95 points for the second straight year—a rare feat in and of itself.
With the universally hailed 2009 Burgundies now hitting shelves (Pethel believes his 2010 vintages will be even better), that demand will only increase. For Washingtonians stocking their cellars, there is good news: Pethel’s wines are imported by Schneider’s of Capitol Hill (300 Massachusetts Ave. NE, 202-543-9300), one of the local shops he used to frequent while dreaming of Burgundy, and can be found at restaurants like Bistro Bis, where Pethel recently hosted a wine dinner that became more like a reunion. It took an unlikely dream and a pilgrimage across the pond, but it seems Pethel is finally making his mark on the nation’s capital.
Tasting: Four Wines from Domaine Dublère
2009 Les Millerands Bourgogne Blanc ($27): Domaine Dublère’s “basic” Bourgogne is anything but. Sourced from a lieu-dit (designated vineyard) located in the famed town of Meursault, this is almost a “baby” Meursault. Rich, yet bone dry, even a little nutty. A perfect aperitif wine.
2008 Les Preuses Chablis ($80): This Grand Cru white has it all—elegance with aromas of white peach and flowers and even a (small) taste of honey. The tautness suggests this has the stuffing to last for years. Try with seafood, such as seared scallops.
2007 Les Blanches Fleurs Beaune ($50): From an extremely small Premier Cru vineyard, this is truly a rare wine. It is also a spicy one, emphasizing red and black fruit on the palate. A refreshing wine with a firm structure to allow aging.
2008 Taillepieds Volnay ($60): If wine were perfume, this Premier Cru from Volnay might be it. Elegant and delicate, yet with full-bodied flavors of cherry and strawberry. Simply put: a complete wine.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OLA BERGMAN
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.